About Curmudgeon

I can think of several people who do not annoy me.

Two (and-a-Half) Cheers for the Neocons

The 106th post from the Journal of American Greatness originally published in May, 2016.

[UPDATE: It’s been pointed out that David P. Goldman beat us to this theme (and title) by some nine months.  No disrespect or plagiarism was intended.  This was written in ignorance of his original column, with which we substantially agree.]

We at JAG seem to enjoy bashing the neocons.  This might give some the impression that we have no respect for them at all or that we deny or disdain any and all of their accomplishments.

Not so.  The neocons were once a mighty force for good, on two principle scores.  You might even say three, but three cheers would be too much in the current environment, in which they definitely deserve some jeers.  However, we will mention all three in the interest of fairness.

First, the neocons were the first significant cadre of leftist intellectuals to break with the left and move rightward.  This was an epochal event in ways that are no longer sufficiently appreciated.  From the moment that Communism began to gain political strength in the late 19th century, the left showed amazing esprit de corps and “message discipline.”  The few who did break with them—Chambers and Dos Passos, for instance—were essentially declared non-persons and drummed out of intellectual life or else ghettoized and read only by their new friends on the right.  The neocons, by contrast—in part because of their origin on the left and personal relationships with leading leftist intellectuals—were able to make the break and keep their “intellectuals license,” to retain the recognition (however grudging) from their former allies that they were genuine thinkers who had to be taken seriously.

A related factor, which we hesitate to mention lest it provide aid and comfort to alt-right anti-Semites, is of non-trivial importance.  Painting with broad strokes, we may say the pre-war liberal intelligentsia (Edmund Wilson, doyen) was not substantially Jewish.  But the postwar liberal intelligentsia (Lionel Trilling, doyen) was definitely trending Jewish if not monolithically so.  To be taken seriously it was almost essential to have some connection to the New York Intellectual scene, which included a large number of influential Jewish voices.  New York felt it could safely ignore the likes of Russell Kirk.  It could not ignore Irving Kristol, who was emphatically one of its own—a prodigal son.

Thus all of the sudden many on the left felt they had to take the right seriously.  Not to agree with it necessarily, but to treat its arguments as if they were at least worthy of refutation.  This is something that the dominant leftist intellectual culture had not felt it necessary to do for several decades.  It had the effect of legitimizing the intellectual right and so paving the way for its later successes.

So that’s (half)-cheer number one.  The first full cheer follows directly from it.  The early neocons were brilliant on substance.  Let’s not deny or overlook that fact.  They brought an intellectual rigor to left-dominated social science that used the tools of social science to bolster long-asserted conservative insights with hard data.  Conversely, they were the first to use the social science methods of the hubristic post-War liberal consensus—which held that “science” was going to cure “the ills of the cities” even more effectively than philosopher-kingship—against that consensus.  The early neocons, like intellectual jujitsu fighters, seized the left’s tools and used them to demonstrate the vacuity and failures of the left’s social programs.  A great deal of successful conservative social policy—crime reduction, welfare reform and much else—has followed this trail first blazed by the neocons.

Neo-conservatism is today most associated with foreign, not domestic, policy.  This brings us to our second full cheer.  A common thread uniting the original two camps of neocons is apostasy: both, as it were, rebelled against their ancestral faiths.  The foreign policy neocons were Cold War Democrats appalled by America’s betrayal of South Vietnam, the McGovern nomination, and the Nixon-Kissinger policy of “détente.”  They intuited—it turned out correctly—that American weakness was making the world more dangerous, that the Soviet Union need not be accepted as a permanent geopolitical fact, and that renewed American strength would enhance American interests and could change the world for the better.

Ronald Reagan and many others on the right came to all these conclusions independently—and, as the Nixon-Kissinger point illustrates, in defiance of their own political party.  The informal migration of the Cold War neocons to the intellectual right, followed by their formal entry into the Republican Party, helped conservatives within the Party win the argument on foreign policy, which strengthened America and helped win the Cold War.

These two momentous achievements deserve two rousing cheers.

But how did they translate into the Middle East democracy agenda?  We can speculate as to the answer.  First, the conservative critique of Bill Clinton’s foreign policy fecklessness was generally correct.  Hence, especially after 9/11, the bumbling of the late 1990s looked in hindsight a lot like thebumbling of the late 1970s.  A reassertion of American strength was paramount, said the neocons.  To this extent, we agree(d).  Second, the 1970s foreign policy neocons won the argument with the “realists” over the efficacy of using human rights and other moral considerations as cudgels with which to batter the legitimacy of Communism generally and the USSR specifically.

However, the application of this principle to the Middle East proved both unnecessary and unwise. Ironically, the original neocon fealty to empirical social science should have revealed the unwisdomthe impracticality—of the democratization dream.

But by then neo-conservatism had ossified into an ideology.  Which points to the other common thread uniting the first two generations of neocons.  They were responding to the exigencies of their times.  To meet those exigencies, they formulated new ideas, or adapted old ones, specifically tailored to the circumstances they (and the country) faced.  Compare that with today’s “neocons” who—if one thinks about it—barely deserve the name.  There is nothing “new” about them.  All they do is take decades-old formulas and force them on times and circumstances to which they are manifestly unsuited.  Worse, unlike their forebears, they seem incapable of learning from their mistakes or changing their minds.  In Irving Kristol’s famous formulation, a neo-conservative is “a liberal who has been mugged by reality.”  I.e., who has changed his mind in response to undeniable fact—especially in the face of the obvious failure and untruth of what he once believed.  When was the last time you saw a Kagan or aBoot do that?

The elevation of time-bound policies—however efficacious in the moment—to high principle is the principal malady afflicting intellectual conservatism today.  Not just neo-, fairness compels us to add, but all brands, with and without prefixes.   In not understanding the grounding of the good and natural right, conservatives mistake second- and third-order strategy and tactics for uncompromisable holy principle.  Genuine eternal principles are difficult to grasp and rarely (if ever) “supply us with recipesfor today’s use.”  One of the reasons that the great works of political philosophy are so hard to understand is that their authors wished to avoid having their teachings rotely applied to transient issues.  There are at once many more, and many fewer, than 48 laws of power.  No political formula ever works in perpetuity.  Prudence is always a requirement of sound statesmanship.  The original neocons had it.  Their intellectual children and grandchildren don’t.


Trading on One’s Strengths

The 105th post from the Journal of American Greatness originally published in May, 2016.

THE STRONG DOLLAR AND THE DANGERS of a globalized economy have combined in recent months to favor American manufacturers who sell their products domestically rather than internationally, according to the Wall Street Journal (May 23): “Global industrial giants are struggling under the weight of a strong dollar, reeling commodity markets and weak demand in emerging and advanced economies alike, from Brazil to Europe to China. But domestically oriented U.S. manufacturers are faring better, with steadier business buoyed by the relatively brighter auto, housing and job markets.”

As became clear in 2008 (if it wasn’t already clear before), interconnectedness in financial markets is a significant part of systemic risk, even though in some cases it ameliorates risk. Global connection within a market, connection across markets and the financialization of all markets bring both opportunity and risk. When sectors of the American economy are heavily connected, whether at the point of manufacture or at the point of sale, with far-flung parts of the globe, every part of their manufacturing and sale process is also made more fragile. It is not always a boon to “antifragility,” as the book had it some years ago.

The companies that have weathered the recent turmoil in emerging markets and Europe have been those able to sell their goods domestically regardless of the vagaries of overseas market conditions. The strong dollar has weighed on exporters, but much less so on domestic firms selling their goods locally.

Such news doubtless comes as a shock to those knowing conservatives who knew all along and still know that globalization is the future and get on with it and let’s build the future. It’s a perplexing stance, in response to which Peter Thiel sensibly noted (in this week’s Conversations with Bill Kristol) that the lead stages of globalization are already behind us. Yet the conservative horror at Trump’s trade proposals pretends that globalization is all in the future. The Journal‘s simple report is no longer common sense. Why not?

IT DOES NOT REQUIRE “PRINCIPLES” to recognize that firsthand knowledge of one’s countrymen often puts one at a market advantage over those who are from abroad. In making this observation, our purpose is not to argue that trade should only be domestic, or that exporters of products genuinely needed at a foreign market are at a permanent disadvantage. Coffee-growers in Latin America have to export their product to American roasteries, and individual coffee plantations are at no market disadvantage compared to selling on their home markets since in many cases a foreign market is required to move product.

Trading on one’s strengths fully comports with the Greatness Agenda outlined by JAG. The Principled crowd for whom free trade is a Principle, however, wrongly assume that the global direction of free trade in many market sectors means that domestically focused manufacturing is increasingly unnecessary or even undesirable. They also wrongly point to the overall glossiness of American manufacturing statistics to excuse the decline in manufacturing employment, as though it doesn’t matter if anyone works so long as we’ve got the things. The problem with elevating free trade into a principle of Principled Conservatism is not that protectionism is the proper opposing principle, but that the application of domestic principles to foreign trade inappropriately hamstrings American policy-makers.

Several years ago, the Harvard Business Review had to remind its readers that the advantages of domestic manufacturing would not necessarily show up in traditional discounted cash flow models designed to compare the costs of locating a plant at home or abroad. “The trouble with this approach,” they wrote, “is that DCF typically undervalues flexibility. As a result, companies may end up with supply chains that are lean and low cost as long as everything goes according to plan—but horribly expensive if the unexpected occurs.”

Domestic manufacturing has other benefits, as well. Nicholas Ventura, the founder of a small clothing company, employs six hundred people in textile manufacturing across a sixteen-block radius in Los Angeles. By focusing on manufacturing domestically, he wrote in the Washington Post, business owners can avoid the “extreme cost-saving minimums” required for overseas production. “The speed of domestic supply chains,” he also noted, “is leaps and bounds quicker than that of overseas supply chains.” Similarly, “Forecasting trends in the marketplace is more forgiving with a quick supply chain.”

All these points are intuitively obvious, yet they’re overlooked when the cultural consensus regarding global capitalism points would-be manufacturers to look abroad. Even if Trump’s call to “Make America Great Again” serves no other purpose, it assists however modestly in reorienting potential capital investment domestically. We harbor no illusions about the difficulty in doing so, not least from the pressure brought upon companies as they seek to finance their expanded operations.

The drive toward outsourcing manufacturing, geographically separating design and manufacture, separating production from market, and even separating each part of the manufacturing process are all aspects of culture and not simply market operations. Changes to American trade policy must be preceded by a cultural transformation toward identifying a link between economic production generally and national greatness. The attempts to minimize the phenomenon of Trumpism, to explain it away or to lob cheap (foreign-produced?) insults at its messenger overlook the importance of that simple change.

FORGOTTEN IN THE DISPUTES over Trumpian trade policy is the fact that in the United States, domestic trade is free trade—free across the borders of American states. The drive for free trade within the U.S. was a constituent part of the nation itself and not merely its constitutional settlement. That constitutional permission of trade across state lines formed the American commercial psyche and so formed the nation itself.

Foreign trade, however admirable and important it may be in particular market sectors, does not “form” the nation in the same way. The classical philosophers were regularly concerned about port cities, where citizens could consume foreign ideas and foreign sailors could consume, well, ladies of the night. Plus ça change

What distinguishes domestic trade and foreign trade is that foreign affairs are not subject to the same principles which operate in domestic context. Appealing to the “principle” of free trade as a part of the “principles” of Principled Conservatism™ confuses the relationship between conservatism and the American republic as well as the role of “principles” in domestic politics and foreign affairs. The point of the principles of conservatism (at this point, what difference does it make?), is to identify the ways to conserve the American polity. For ourselves, we are neither carte blanche in favor of free trade nor committed to a system such as Fichte’s Closed Commercial State. (The matter of the closed commercial state is an important one, however, from the standpoint of identifying the tension between the political forms necessary to achieve domestic goals and those necessary to act effectively in matters of foreign affairs.)

This difference is found in other aspects of American constitutional practice, as well. One cannot say that “liberty of speech” is good such that the American government is equally obligated to protect the liberty of speech of its citizens and that of resident aliens, guest workers, travelers and the like. Similarly, the evident goodness of trade tells us, on its own, not a single thing at all about what our attitude toward Chinese steel dumping should be at a particular moment. (Much to the Cato Institute’s chagrin, Reagan violated the principles of free trade on numerous occasions. George W. Bush did, too!) Similarly still, the goodness of living under a representative democratic government in itself tells us nothing about whether to allow some particular immigrant to apply for U.S. citizenship. A sovereign state has the right to close its borders to any group or to open them to any group.

None of these “nothings” tells us that these things are forbidden, either. We may well establish a mutual abolition of tariffs on certain goods with a certain country at a certain time. We may well admit high-skilled workers from European countries, or even Canada, to come to the U.S. and apply for citizenship. Our evaluation of those matters is one of prudence in the interest of American greatness.

Though we disagree with their analysis on other respects, conservatives who link trade policy to foreign policy are at least on the right track. Williamson’s argument that “Free men do not have to beg the prince’s permission to buy from or sell to whom they choose” is simple obscurantism.

Those who treat free trade as an absolute principle often seem to imagine that America is a very small state with limited national resources, almost entirely dependent on foreign trade to leverage its handful of industries in favor of purchasing basic goods from abroad. Yet the forty-eight contiguous states (and the additional far-flung pair) were gathered in time across a continent rich in natural resources, harboring a variety of climates, and filled with people with a knack for commercial ingenuity. America’s commercial ingenuity is part of the strength that it can use for the purposes of preserving and extending national greatness.

A sly comment in National Review‘s most recent paean to free trade agreements admits that it would be “almost certainly impossible” for the U.S. to pursue protectionist policies even if it wanted to. The reason why is telling. “U.S. manufacturers,” writes Scott Lincicome, “have evolved over decades to become integral links in a breathtakingly complex global value chain—whereby producers across continents cooperate to produce a single product based on their respective comparative advantages—that could not be severed without crippling both them and the global economy.” The complexity of global manufacturing chains is part of the reality that Lincicome’s glossy statistics overlook. Comparative advantages are becoming ever more fungible and easily replaced. Simply occupying a little spot in the global supply chain may not be enough to keep American manufacturers in the supply chain. When the whole supply chain is located domestically (and again, we are not elevating that as a Principle), the matter is different.

How the principle of American greatness became lost and regarded as the antithesis of a principle by Principled Conservatives is the story of conservatism’s decline. “There shall be free trade on the part of the United States” is not a Principle but the abdication of political judgment in matters pertaining to American strength. When the Wall Street Journal has to call everyone’s attention to the comparative advantage of domestic manufacturing itself, maybe our Principled friends will start to think of ways to shore it up.


“Enhanced Whack-A-Mole”: An Anti-Terror Strategy for Trump

The 104th post from the Journal of American Greatness originally published in May, 2016.

As noted, we liked Trump’s foreign policy speech.  Among the many things we found in it to like, perhaps the most important is Trump’s forthright (and correct) assertion that America still has dangerous enemies and will need to remain ready, willing and able to fight them.

One might respond that we are cheap dates, given that every Republican nominee in the last half-century at least has pledged the same.  But America’s post-9/11 wars, especially Iraq, have scrambled all the usual formulas and expectations.  Certainly, in the 2016 cycle, there was no shortage of Republican candidates pledging to Get Tough on America’s enemies.  The problem was that nearly all of them were also neocon democracy crusaders.

This is now a highly unpopular position in the Republican Party, which explains in large measure the enthusiasm for Trump.  Yet—at least at the intellectual level—those Trump supporters who see the folly of the democracy agenda tend toward their own brand of folly: the isolationist illusion that, whatever enemies we may have, hate us mostly in response to our own provocations and—like proverbial bees and bears—if we didn’t bother them, they wouldn’t bother us.  Foreign policy on the “right” is thus a choice between two brands of naïve utopianism: either more pointless war or endlessly turning the other cheek.

That was the Republican choice until Trump.  Or, at least until Trump and Cruz who—for all his other faults—at least presented a positive turn in Republican foreign policy (though not entirely in his choice of advisors, some of whom seem to think The Manchurian Candidate was a documentary).

The mandarins of course found something to mock in virtually every line of the speech.  Not least was this, on ISIS:

And then there’s ISIS. I have a simple message for them. Their days are numbered. I won’t tell them where and I won’t tell them how. We must as, a nation, be more unpredictable. But they’re going to be gone. And soon.

Now, we have some quibbles with that.  First, Trump should have mentioned al-Qaida, which, despite the Obama administration’s transparently false assertions, is stronger than it’s ever been.  (It controls more territory in more countries today than it did before 9/11.)  And it’s probably more dangerous than ISIS.  Second, to promise that ISIS is “going to be gone” is to overpromise, in that there is no sure to way to ensure that short of a massive invasion and long occupation of the kind that Trump rightly eschews.  But we may dismiss that as campaign rhetoric.

However, that’s not what drew the guffaws.  It was Trump’s promise of unpredictability that had themlaughing from the gallery.  But on this Trump was exactly right.  Some of the best and most profound strategies are captured by very few words.  Trump’s eleven, properly interpreted, fit our current needs to a “T.”  We shall attempt to explain how.  Doing so will require a seemingly circuitous route through what appear to be side roads.  However, for those who persevere, one may see the design of the author in the design of the post.

Did you hear the one about the truck driver who built a nuclear weapon?  No, seriously.  Now, it’s not a full-on Teller-Ullam two-stage thermonuclear metropolis-killer. It’s merely an exact—exact—copy of Little Boy, the HEU gun-assembly bomb that destroyed Hiroshima on August 6th, 1945.  The trucker’s bomb lacks only two things to make it go boom: the cordite priming charges to fire one part of the highly enriched uranium core into the other, and that uranium core itself.  The first would be easy to get but dangerous to carry around. The second would be quite hard indeed to get.

Which is probably, at this point, the only reason why a home-made Little Boy or something very much like it has not been detonated at 42nd and Vanderbilt or 17th and G.  Don’t kid yourself: they want to. We’re not going to repeat the case for how we know that, because we’re not specialists in it and others are far, far better equipped.  If you’re an alt-righter or paleo-isolationist who thinks all we have to do is end the U.S.-Israel alliance, and the whole Muslim terror problem will go away, this Journal will be a consistent source of anger and disappointment to you.  They’d still want to nuke us.  And, given the material, they could.  “The secret of the atomic bomb is how easy they are to make,” our trucker has observed.

The conventional wisdom of the foreign policy establishment, ably summarized in this paper, is that such an occurrence, while not impossible, is so unlikely that U.S. policy should focus its energies elsewhere.  It’s unlikely, the authors argue, because of the high likelihood of establishing attribution, and thus a target against which to retaliate.  Hence any state in possession of nuclear materials (and only states possess such materials in necessary quantities) would never dare use such weapons themselves or give nuclear materials to terrorists.

The paper is thorough and for the most part honestly weighs most of the arguments (which we will not summarize) for and against its conclusion.  Yet we are not convinced by that conclusion, or that the facts the authors themselves present warrant it.

Their case for certainty (or near certainty) of attribution rests on two foundations: first, the ability of “nuclear forensics” to determine the origin of a bomb’s fissile material, and second, the very good track record (so far) of fixing attribution for conventional terror attacks.

Let’s examine these in reverse order.  The authors show that just under half terrorist attacks committed since 1998 (the year al-Qaida bombed the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania) have been definitively traced to their sources.  The attribution rate rises with an attack’s fatality count—mass casualty (>500) attacks have an almost 100% attribution rate—and depending on the target. Attacks against the U.S. and our allies are much more likely to be attributed.

All well and good.  But a near 100% attribution rate for attacks against the U.S. or allies that killed more than 20 people has hardly stopped terror.

More to the point: a nuclear terror attack would have to have at least two sources: the terrorist group itself and the state that provides the fissile material.  The high attribution rate on which the authors hang so much refers only to the terrorist group and not the state.  Not that they ignore the state; we’ll consider what they have to say about states shortly.  The point is simply that knowing which terrorist group hit you is not the same as knowing which state was behind them.  And, to say the least, terrorist groups are much less deterrable than states: their raison d’etre is to commit attacks.  They are also much harder to retaliate against, especially without the cooperation of the states that harbor and support them.

The authors furthermore do not address several very important points.  The 9/11 attacks were carried out by a terrorist group (al-Qaida) with the backing of a state (the Taliban regime in Afghanistan). Neither were deterred by the prospect of American attribution and retaliation.  Either one or the other (or both) of them didn’t think the attribution would or could be made, didn’t believe the United States would follow through, thought they could withstand whatever retaliation might come, or simply didn’t care about retaliation and judged the attack itself to be much more important than any ensuing negative consequence to themselves.  Similar thinking along any of these lines may similarly motivate some other terrorist-state combination to try again.

As an aside, we may ask: does anyone believe that had al-Qaida been able to access a nuclear weapon in the 1990s (which they tried and failed to do) and get it into the U.S. (not a difficult thing to do, alas) they would not have used it?

Even more important, while the authors put 9/11 unambiguously into the “attributed” category, the truth is not quite so neat.  Certainly we know that al-Qaida was behind the attack, that al-Qaida was at that time headquartered in Afghanistan, and that the Taliban knew of and helped with the 9/11 plot. But the 9/11 Commission also found evidence of Iranian involvement, which it urged should be investigated further.  It never has been.  A Senate inquiry also found at least some evidence of Saudi involvement, but the pages of its report that detail those findings remain classified.  So it’s at least possible that other states were involved, their involvement has never been proved, and they’ve consequently never faced any retaliation.

The authors of the paper assume binary alternatives: state-sponsorship is either “known” or “anonymous.”  “Suspected but not proved” they do not analyze, even though there are several recent cases of such.  If indeed some of those suspected are in fact guilty, the lesson that such states (and others) would draw is that muddying one’s involvement in a terrorist plot enough to escape retaliationis possible.  A further lesson: the likelihood of escaping retaliation goes up if you’re but one of several countries in on the plot.

Even when attribution is known, the United States does not always retaliate.  One big reason why, since 1979, Iran has remained, with very few exceptions, very aggressive toward U.S. interests—even to the point of killing American soldiers and Marines in Iraq and Afghanistan—is because we so rarely ever hit them back.  For example, we didn’t retaliate after either the 1983 Marine barracks bombing in Lebanon or the 1996 Khobar Towers attack in Saudi Arabia.  On the occasions when we DO retaliate—such as the 1987-88 actions that sunk half the Iranian navy—the regime’s behavior subsequently becomes much less aggressive and much more circumspect.  For a while—until they realize that we have reverted to passive form, as we always do.

The principle reason why America behaves this way is not exactly calculated to make enemies fear us. In the three years between the degeneration of Iraq into anarchy and the beginning of the Surge, Iran operated several “rat lines” of men and materiel in to Iraq.  Much of the munitions used to build IEDs that killed and maimed American soldiers originated in Iran.  On a smaller scale, Iranian fighters sometimes fought with Iraqi Shia militias and killed American soldiers with their own hands.  For years, American policy-makers knew of this, did nothing about it, and denied it was even happening. Why?  The staff director of the 9/11 Commission, and principal author of its report, noted that once American officials acknowledged the truth, they would have been obligated to do something about it, which risked wider war with Iran, a risk few in the (allegedly war-hungry) Bush Administration were willing to take.  Yet when the Surge began, one element of the strategy was to shut down those rat lines, which meant engaging Iranian fighters.  Which we did, and the rat lines were shut down (for a while).  With no wider war.

All of this is to say, even the certainty of attribution is not necessarily an effective deterrent—especially when you know your target has a track record of inconsistent retaliation.

While the authors address none of this, they do argue—plausibly—that the stakes involving nuclear weapons are so much higher, that states’ calculations will be quite different than with support for conventional terrorism.  However, they stretch the point much too far and in so doing commit an important error of omission:

Nuclear weapons are the most powerful weapons a state can acquire, and handing that power to an actor over which the state has less than complete control would be an enormous, epochal decision—one unlikely to be taken by regimes that are typically obsessed with power and their own survival.

The authors don’t exactly deny—but don’t forthrightly disclose either—that this has already happened. About a quarter century after the fact, American intelligence pieced together that in 1982 or 1983,China gave a finished nuclear bomb to Pakistan.  (This is to say nothing about the myriad other instances of state-to-state cooperation on nuclear matters; no state—not even the United States—has ever built the bomb on its own.)  This is not the place to go into the “why” of that decision, even to the limited extent that we understand it or to which it can be understood.  It is rather only to make the point that even one occurrence (the only one we know of, incidentally) of a “Black Swan” phenomenon is enough to prove that it’s possible, not unprecedented, and so could happen again.

Regarding the authors’ first reason for confidence that deterrence will work—nuclear forensics—the authors themselves admit that it is far from perfect.  Its success depends in large part on the cooperation of regimes that may have reasons not to want to provide information about their own fissile material programs (either because such states are engaged in proliferation, are supporters of or sympathetic to terrorists, or are anti-“world order” in outlook, or some combination of these).  Absent nearly universal cooperation from all states that have mastered the nuclear fuel cycle, nuclear forensics must be considered imperfect.

Were nuclear forensics to result in only a “best guess” or high-probability estimate after a nuclear attack on American soil, our policy-makers would themselves be divided on the wisdom and justice of retaliation.  Public opinion would surely be divided, with the “left” (or some loud and significant portion thereof) arguing that it would be immoral to retaliate a country without being sure. International opinion would hold the same view, only more insistently.  And of course the target country itself, plus its allies and friends, and America’s major geostrategic adversaries (chiefly Russia and China) would insist on the absolute immorality of retaliation absent absolute certainty.

It’s at least possible, then, that some anti-American regime has thought this same issue through, come to the same conclusion, and therefore does not feel deterred by nuclear forensics.

Nor do these considerations exhaust the ways in which a culprit state might escape retaliation.  One of the reasons that the United States was able to effectively (at least until Tora Bora) retaliate against the Taliban after 9/11 was because Afghanistan had no great-power patron.  Pakistan and North Korea do: China.  China can strike the West Coast (at least) of the United States with thermonuclear warheads. China has even threatened Los Angeles with nuclear attack in the past.  Would China stand by and allow the United States to attack its client and ally?  A client and ally China herself helped to arm with nuclear weapons?  If Pakistani officials know or believe that China would stand by them, wouldn’t that make them less likely to be deterred?  A similar consideration arises with respect to Russia and Iran.

The authors acknowledge, but do not explore, the possibility that incompetence, corruption or instability might result in nuclear materials falling into the hands of terrorists.  The transfer of nuclear materials owing to one of these factors is obviously much less deterrable than deliberate state action. The most one could say on that score is that fearing retaliation for a transfer the regime did not intend will make regimes take nuclear security very seriously.  And we hope they all do.  However, given (for instance) the rampant corruption and massive stockpiles of nuclear material in Russia, and the strong ties that Pakistani military and intelligence officials maintain with jihadis, one cannot be too confident on this score.

Some have proposed a “negligence doctrine”: if your nuclear material ends up nuking me, no matter how it got here, you’re going to bear the brunt.  But this poses a number of problems.  The first is that, as noted, nuclear forensics is far from perfect.  We will always know where a missile or bomber came from.  There will be a “return address.”  Our truck driver, by contrast, drove his Little Boy across the United States in a Penske rental.  Terrorists could do the same and there would be no return address beyond the “signature” in the fissile material—which we might, or might not, be able to trace back to its source.  This brings up the public opinion problem raised above.

Second, is the “negligence doctrine” credible against Russia?  The nation with the largest stockpile of nuclear material and arguably most at risk of an inadvertent transfer?  Russia has, to say the least, a lot of options—including about 1,800 operationally deployed nuclear warheads, and thousands more in the stockpile—for deterring American retaliation under a negligence doctrine.  A doctrine that forces the United States either to risk the end of civilization or else back down once the bluff of its non-credible threat is called is worth very little in the real world.

If Russia is the country most likely to lose control of its nuclear material owing to incompetence (lax security) or corruption (sale for monetary gain), Pakistan is the country most likely to lose control through connivance or instability.  That is, through the deliberate transfer of nuclear materials to an allied terrorist group by genuine regime officials, but without approval or even knowledge of the top of the government.  Or else through a crisis that so weakens the authority of the Islamabad government that it’s not clear who’s in charge, and military/intelligence officials allied to or even difficult to distinguish from terrorists gain control of some part of the nuclear arsenal.

In all of these cases, assuming an attack on the U.S. were proved conclusively to have been perpetrated with a given country’s nuclear material, the regime would disclaim all knowledge and intent and appeal to Washington, and to American and world public opinion for forbearance.  How could we punish an entire nation for the unsanctioned—indeed, heartily condemned!—action of a rogue few? Many—including many Americans—will be asking exactly that.  Would you punish the man from whose home a gun was stolen for the murder committed with it?  Perhaps with probation or a fine—the international-relations equivalent of which the negligent nation would be only too happy to incur.  But would you kill him?  It may not be such a simple matter to muster the will for retaliation.  When one considers all the times that the U.S. has forgone retaliation when it had absolutely no doubt about both an attack’s authorship and deliberate intent, this question looms even larger.

Keep in mind what nuclear deterrence is: the threat to kill tens or hundreds of thousands of at least nominally innocent civilians.  One might rejoin: the response to a nuclear terror attack need not be nuclear.  Our conventional response to 9/11, after all, toppled a regime.  True.  But Pakistan and Iran are much larger and much better defended.  North Korea is much more geographically formidable.  All have powerful patrons and powerful abilities to harm our allies and interests.  Just how credible, then, is a conventional threat?  And how credible a nuclear threat?

One other consideration that may seem picayune, but we believe would be relevant in the circumstance.  The simplest nuclear bomb to build is, as said, a copy (however inexact) of Little Boy. Without sophisticated ways of “boosting” the yield, its explosive power would be on the order of 15 kilotons.  The Hiroshima bomb, for maximum effect, was detonated at an altitude of about 1,900 feet. No terrorist is going to be able to air drop a bomb over Manhattan or Washington.  The attack will therefore be a “ground burst” and thus much less devastating, at the same yield, than the Hiroshima bomb.  Much of the world has never forgiven us for that act.  To them, it would be a delicious case of just desserts if we were hit by the same style of bomb however many decades later.  The fact that the effect would be even less powerful would argue, in these people’s eyes, that we “got off easy” and that no retaliation could possibly be justified.  For the last several decades—you might even say half-century, since Susan Sontag’s declaration that “the white race is the cancer of human history”—it has been fashionable to “visit the sins” of Western fathers (but only Western fathers) onto Western sons. The West is forever guilty.  America is still guilty for Hiroshima and a nuclear attack on American soil will be understood by billions to be justified and welcome come-uppance.  Given the state of American self-loathing today, it’s at least an open question how many Americans will agree.  But one thing is sure: that vein of opinion will make retaliation yet more difficult.

Once again, as with nuclear forensics, if we’ve been able to think all this through, it’s at least possible that some anti-American regime has thought these same issues through, come to the same conclusion, and therefore does not feel deterred.

All of this is not to say that deterrence is impossible; only that it is not enough.  It is not reliable enough to be counted on in insolation.  Non-proliferation can help but is no panacea.  To date, no nation that has sought the bomb has been stopped purely by non-proliferation efforts.  The nations that have given up either the quest for nuclear weapons (Brazil, Libya) or the weapons themselves (South Africa) have either changed their minds or changed their regimes.

This is why conservative fulmination about the Iran deal is so oversold.  Yes, it’s a bad deal and yes the Obama administration lied in selling it.  But neither the best deal nor the absence of a deal was going to stop Iran from getting the bomb.  A country as big, rich, and sophisticated as Iran—if it really wants nuclear weapons—it will get them sooner or later.  Countries much smaller (Israel), poorer (North Korea) and dumber (Pakistan) have managed it.  The only way to stop Iran, again, is either to change the regime’s mind or change the regime.  The former would have required much tougher sanctions, plus the cooperation of all of all Europe and Russia.  We were never going to get that.  And even if we had, there’s no guarantee the Iranian regime would have changed its mind.  North Korea never has, despite being sanctioned to the hilt for decades.  Libya did only when it was caught red-handed importing nuclear materials from Pakistan—mere months after the U.S. armed forces toppled the Iraqi government.  Iraq is a complicated story, but Saddam appears to have at least put his nuclear ambitions on indefinite hold after being caught (for the third time) in 1995 with an illicit program. Brazil is the only country we can think of that gave up its nuclear program owing only to sanctions and diplomacy.

If you can’t change the regime’s mind, that leaves changing the regime.  We at JAG have been forthright in our opinion that the second Iraq War was a mistake.  That doesn’t mean the concept of “regime change” is always a mistake.  This is, once again, a matter of prudence, not dogma.  Regime change was the absolutely necessary culmination of World War II.  It would have been unwise following the otherwise prudent first Gulf War.  When the neo-cons at the time excoriated the Bush Administration for “not finishing the job,” that should have woken more of us up to the fact that their judgment had become unsound.

There is little question that America would benefit from regime change in Iran.  It’s hard—though not impossible—to image a regime worse for U.S. interests or more hostile to America in practice.  So, while there’s always a chance that change might be for the worse, in Iran the status quo is so bad that this danger is low.

But how to achieve that change?  There was a chance—however slim—to help achieve it peacefully in 2009, when the Iranian people took to the streets in protest.  Some calibrated American support (well short of military action, we hasten to clarify) might have given the regime a push and helped the people liberate themselves.  For all his faults, President George W. Bush would likely have given the regime such a push.  But by then Obama was in office.  And for all their faults, the conservatives are not wrong about everything.  Obama really does seem to have a reflexive instinct to insult friends and coddle enemies.  He not only declined to do anything to further the “Green Revolution”; he said and did things favorable to the Islamic Republic.  His motive, we believe, was to preserve that regime so that a crowning achievement of his administration could be the vaunted “deal,” the dream of liberal internationalists since 1979—their very own NixonOpeningChina.

So the opportunity passed and none has arisen since.  That leaves regime change by force.  We need to be clear here that “bombing Iran” would not end its nuclear program and would probably make the whole situation much worse.  Iran has a lot of buttons it can push to harm American, allied and Israeli—especially Israeli—interests.  Bombing nuclear sites might retard the nuclear program, but at great cost.  Would such a delay be worth that cost?  What is our plan for what to do with that delay in the meantime?  American officials of both parties, and Israeli officials too, have made these calculations and concluded: it’s not worth it.  They’ll still get the bomb and we’ll pay a huge price—in Iranian retaliation and in world opinion—for our troubles.

That leaves invasion.  Does that sound prudent to anyone?  Perhaps as a last resort.  But, as noted, we’re nowhere near the last resort.  America has all sorts of options for retaliating against Iranian aggression that we decline to exercise.  Granted, utilizing those options is much more politically difficult with the deal now in place. But not impossible.  It would require growing a spine and being willing to respond to Iranian provocations, and using our brains to think through when, where and how.  The more familiar one is with the pusillanimity of the American foreign policy establishment, the more one sympathizes with neocon frustration.  But by the same token, the more familiar one is with indiscriminate neocon bellicosity, the more one appreciates paleo-isolationist exasperation.

If we may further shock conservative ears, there is a case to be made for the Iran deal.  Not its terms or the mendacity with which it was made.  But for the deal itself, the ostensible purpose of which is to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon.  The only thing short of war that can stop that, as noted, is a change in the Iranian mind.  The one thing the Iranian regime wants more than nuclear weapons is full access to the global economy and First-World financial system.  (Well, that and its frozen assets back.)  The deal paves the way to realizing that dream.  But not if they flagrantly flout it.  If they do that, all the sanctions—and more—are likely to be re-imposed.  Tehran won’t have the Obama spin machine to cover for them for much longer.  And whatever you think of Western pusillanimity, betrayed losers tend to react angrily.  Even arch-appeaser Neville Chamberlain got mad when Hitler personally humiliated him by invading Poland.  (Did you ever think you’d read a Munich reference notintended to urge more war?  JAG delivers!)

The deal thus may not stop nuclear development, but it could push it underground, slow it down, make it less intense.  To repeat: if Iran wants the bomb, Iran will get the bomb.  The question is: does Iran want the bomb badly enough to lose all that it gained through the deal?  Only time will tell.  One thing we do know is that secret nukes are not that useful.  The only “undeclared” nuclear power is Israel, which despite never formally acknowledging (or testing—unless they did) its arsenal has nonetheless managed to let the world “know” that it has nukes.  Certainly, Iran could not celebrate the debutante ball of a nuclear power and still enjoy access the OECD economy.

What they could do, however, is keep quietly working on a bomb, get all the way to the finish line—and wait.  Wait until the moment when they feel they “need” to go public, until their self-perceived “need” to be recognized as a nuclear power outweighs their assessment of the usefulness of access to the Western economy.  Which could be years, or decades, or longer, or never—who knows?  But we do know that, all the while, that extra cash they’d be accumulating via access to the global economy could be effectively financing their program.

We said it was a “case”—not a “slam dunk case.”

So what do we do?  Here (finally!) we get to the strategy.  By all means, keep on with all those non-proliferation efforts.  By all means, continue with “target hardening” and counterterrorism efforts at home.

But we also have to take the fight to the enemy.  We’ve observed before that the much-maligned Bush-era slogan—fight them there so we don’t have to fight them here—is dead right.  Why it should be so controversial remains mysterious—beyond the obvious point that it’s been spot-welded to the neocon democracy project and thus unfairly discredited.  In reality, the idea undergirding that slogan is no different than the ancient and eternal principle of the buffer state.  All great powers have them.  That’s one of the measures of being a great power.  Can you force your borders outward, and so fight your battles somewhere other than in your own front yard—or living room?

Another Bush-era slogan was “we don’t want to play whack-a-mole with terrorists.”  Condoleezza Rice used to say this in interviews all the time.  She meant: no one-offs but instead a grand strategy to remake the region.  It’s not enough to win military victories.  If that’s all we do, we’ll be fighting jihadis forever because the supply is endless.  The only long-term solution is to modernize, democratize and moderate the Greater Middle East.  Then and only then can we stop this fighting.  And, the people there will be better off and happier, so everybody wins.

Needless to say, it didn’t work out.  So the Obama Administration abandoned the Greater Middle East project (we like you just the way you are, no need to change a thing!), went into strategic retreat everywhere, and vigorously embraced “whack-a-mole.”  But in the most minimalist way.  To them, all whack-a-mole means is drone strikes.  Drones, drones, drones.  Drones + flattering Islamist America-haters is the totality of the Obama counter-terrorism strategy.

There is a better way.  Call it “Enhanced Whack-a-Mole.”  Stop flattering hostile regimes.  Aggressively attack our enemies in ISIS and al-Qaida.  Do not try to control territory for the long term.  Try to win “hearts and minds,” but with minimal effort and low expectations.  Seek alliances from which we can gain basing arrangements to project power.  (This is but one reason why the Obama Iraq bug-out was so unwise: we could have used our continued presence there as a base of operations.  It’s also a reason why our Saudi “alliance” is not so useful: they want us to defend them, but they don’t want us to use their territory to do so.)

The idea is to keep al-Qaida, ISIS—and whoever else may crop up—forever on their back heel and forever being forced to “rebuild the mound.”  This will never be a war like World War II, in which we defeat a regime and it’s over.  We’re not fighting a regime (although some regimes, including Iran, support whom we’re fighting).  We’re fighting a revolutionary political movement that aspires to be a regime.  More than one, actually, but since their goals are the same and they both have us in their sights, there’s no reason for us to treat them any differently.

And, more precisely, what they aspire to be is a caliphate.  In the attempt to revive this medieval concept, they’ve studied all the revolutionary movements of the past few centuries, with special emphasis on the Russian, Chinese and Vietnamese Communists.  Their strategy is to apply those lessons to our times and their goals.

To the extent that they win territory, it is with the purpose of establishing a modern caliphate.  As the Iraq and Afghanistan experience have taught us, we can control territory in the Middle East—but at great cost.  However, recall that the initial campaigns to topple the Taliban and Saddam each lasted less than a month.  ISIS and al-Qaida are both far weaker than Saddam’s Iraq and they control less territory than the Taliban’s Afghanistan.  More to the point, the U.S. military has decisively—decisively—won every battle it’s fought since 9/11, with only three exceptions: Fallujah in 2004 and Kunar in 2007 and 2011.  It can defeat ISIS and al-Qaida easily and endlessly now, so long as “defeat” is defined rationally.  It means: beat them.  Win decisive, “kinetic”—and very public—military victories.  Deny them control of territory.  Shatter their pretensions of a caliphate.  Channeling Cromwell: You have no caliphate.  I say you have no caliphate.  I will put an end to your caliphate.

All their efforts will thus have to be focused on rebuilding, in perpetuity.  Note: we are not saying that the right course is to endlessly bomb civilian targets so that the whole Middle East spends the next century rebuilding water mains and retaining walls.  When we say “they” we mean the terrorists and the Islamists.  And when we say “rebuild” we mean rebuild their political power and territorial control.  Sophisticated international terror plots require the long-term control of territory and the levers of government power.  The 9/11 attacks took five years to plan, during which al-Qaida was joined at the hip with the regime that controlled Afghanistan.  A nuclear attack would be more difficult still and would presumably take longer and require more resources.  So deny them those.  Force them to start over every time and everywhere they begin to gain a foothold.

We present a short example, through which we must again upset our naïvecon friends but this time we make no apology.  The most likely proxy or “cut-out” for an Iranian attack on America (still the “Great Satan,” even after the Obama deal) is Hezbollah.  Hezbollah, for instance, blew up the Marine barracks in 1983.  They are our enemy.  They are also allied with Bashar al-Assad in the Syrian Civil War.  He is a bad man, and also our enemy, though not to the same determined degree.  His regime is opposed by both al-Qaida (under different names) and ISIS.  The “Syrian rebels” friendly or at least not hostile to the West are a naïvecon dream.

So what to do?  There are no “good guys.”  Supporting no one would not be a terrible option since we have no good options.  But right now, it probably makes the most sense to support—Assad.  He is less dangerous to us than the current, rising alternatives.  An Assad allied with Hezbollah is less dangerous than a Syria controlled or partially controlled by al-Qaida or Isis.  Hezbollah has never controlled even a part of Syria and an Assad victory would pose little danger of such, given that the family has extensive experience in keeping Hezbollah at arm’s length and Hezbollah’s power base is in (relatively) distant Southern Lebanon.  If things got to the point that Hezbollah controlled enough territory to project power against U.S. interests and began to display an appetite to do so, then treat it like another mole and whack it.  In the meantime, whack the other, currently more threatening moles.  And ditch the illusions that we can find philosophically simpatico allies in that worse-than-medieval part of the world.

If this sounds like a recipe for endless war, it is not.  It will require far less use of force than the Iraq-Afghan wars of the 2000s, which stretched on for a decade.  We are essentially proposing to emulate the Romans, who made their wars “short and big.”  “Six, ten or twenty days” ought to do it. But let us not dictate a timetable to prudence.  The exigencies of the situation will determine the length.  Saddam’s regime, with something like half a million men under arms, was defeated in three weeks.  It is unlikely that we could not deliver similarly devastating blows to weaker political and military powers in shorter time frames.

But what then?  John Bolton was once overheard to say that his plan for U.S. policy toward post-invasion Iraq was to “give ’em a copy of the Federalist Papers and say ‘good luck’.”  That certainly would have been much better than what we actually did do—not more effective, but much less costly. The point is sound.  Societies that wish our help in modernizing and democratizing—and that are receptive to such endeavors—we may fruitfully help.  One or the other of these criteria is not enough. Both must be present for the effort to make any sense.  For us or them.

But even these two, if present, may not be enough for the effort to make sense for us.  The old saw that the United States cannot be the world’s policeman is half right.  We can’t be, because we can’t afford to be, and because the world is not a state in which one government holds a monopoly of (just) force.  We can—and should—be the policeman of our own interests.  There will be many instances in which those interests coincide with the maintenance of international order.  In fact, there will be more such instances of these than of the reverse.

But maintenance is not necessarily change, much less improvement.  We are obligated not to make things unduly worse for others as we secure our own interests.  We are not obligated to expend our own blood and treasure in trying to make things better for others when such efforts do not coincide with our interests.  And if the Wars of the Aughts have taught us anything, it is that, first, our well-being does not require the transformation of the benighted precincts of the world into liberal democracies.  Second, the attempt can actually undermine our well-being.  Third, even if our well-being did depend on democratizing the world, we don’t know how.


Progress or Return?

The 98th post from the Journal of American Greatness originally published in May, 2016.

A reader asks our opinion of Ben Sasse.  Honestly, we don’t know much about him.  He seems like the kind of person we would have loved in 1994—or even in 2014.  We’re glad he got elected to the Senate and are confident that he’s better than the alternative would have been (not that we remember who that was).

The reader distinguishes between:

the Senator who has spent his brief (speaking) time in the Senate speaking against executive overreach, against the decline of the Congress, and against putting party before country—not the potential candidate for a third party bid which he has called for but seems uninterested in.  It is the later which Trump supporters and the media have recently noticed and mostly mocked, but he former seems more accurate and more interesting.

Are the two so easily separable?  More to the point, does Sasse himself see two Sasses or one?  Or does not his diagnosis of the times (your point #1) inform his prescription for what to do (your point #2)? Thus, to him, point #1 leads directly to #2.

Since you question his program (as do we), are we not—all of us—questioning his prudence?  His judgement?  His fitness to lead in these times?  We know we are …

We note as well that the reader is impressed by Sasse’s “speaking” record in the Senate.  (Later in his message, he praises Sasse’s Senate speeches about the history of the Senate.)  We haven’t heard or read any of them and we will take the reader’s word for it that they are fine speeches.  So what?  What has Sasse done?  That may sound pot-kettle coming from people whose chief public activity is to blog.  But at least in our capacity as editors of JAG, we are thinkers and writers.  Sasse aspires to be a statesman.  Statesmanship is the realm of action.  Not to take anything away from writer-statesmen such as Xenophon, Caesar, Lincoln and Churchill.  But you could strip away their writings and they would still be great statesmen.  Strip away the actions and they would just be writers.

Sasse’s only public act so far, as the reader notes, has been to call for a third party run to divide the Republican Party, stop Trump, and elect Hillary Clinton.  That may be “principled.”  Is it prudent?

In a similar vein, there is this from Mackubin Thomas Owens, a perfect encapsulation of what we call “restorationism.”  Owens praises little in the piece that we do not also love (though we question the relevance of John Stuart Mill to the American Idea).  But the idea that some “return” is possible in these circumstances strikes us as absurd.  What reasons could be cited to validate such a claim?  We would happily trade our current government for one that worked exactly as designed in 1787, as amended in 1865 and shortly thereafter (but, we hasten to add, with a proper understanding of the 14th Amendment that excludes birthright citizenship).  Do Sasse or Owens have a time machine? Ruby slippers?  Click the heels and say it three times: There’s no government like the U.S. Constitution!

The conditions of 2016—the state of the nation and of the people—make a such a return, if not a pipe dream, then at least far from the most urgent priority.  If we are to return to proper American Constitutional government, there is much we need to fix about America first.  We need to make the American people more fit for liberty.  That starts with ceasing to follow polices that undermine their fitness for liberty.  Secure the borders, promote their economic welfare, and stop draining their blood and treasure in pointless war.  Let’s see if we can help get them back to work, off the couch, off the booze and opiates, and all the things Kevin Williamson denounces them for.  Which we dutifully acknowledge are bad things.  And every bad moral choice is ultimately the responsibility of the chooser.

But “ultimately” does not mean “totally.”  Our elites created, through self-interested policy, rotten conditions in which the virtue of the people declined.  One could argue that many of those policies are consistent with some abstract conception of “liberty.”  But this is just further proof that libertarians are fools.  Men have passions and appetites that must be governed.  In the best men, these are governed solely by the self.  But in most men, self-government requires a complex web of relationships and institutions: families, friendships, churches, schools, communities, workplaces, and (gasp!) government—the state.

Strip away all the others, and all you’re left with is the state.  Machiavelli put it this way: fear of God can be replaced by fear of the prince.  But in republics, religion is indispensable.  We would include all those other things, too, but Nicky liked to be pithy.  Anyway, all those others have been undermined by many factors—emphatically including bad policy—in recent years. That leaves us with only the state to bludgeon us into minimally anti-social behavior.  How’s that working out?

“Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind,” reads one clause in the Northwest Ordinance of 1787.  How would you assess the state of 2016 America’s religion, morality and knowledge?  These, too, have been undermined by bad policy.  So why not try some good, or at least different, policies and see if we can do any better?  Do what we can to burnish families, friendships, churches, schools, communities, workplaces, and even good government?

We at JAG are not, to say the least, pie-eyed optimists.  Yet neither are we wholly without hope.  Thecycle of regimes is not always a perfect sine wave: birth, rise, peak, fall, crash, death.  There areexamples of a people lapsing into corruption and then righting themselves: England after the riot of the Restoration and the revelry of the Regency are the most obvious examples.  It’s not common but it’s possible.  And even if a full return to the peak of American virtue (whenever that was) is not possible, surely we can do better than we are doing now.

The urgent priority is implementing the Greatness Agenda, not trying vainly to restore perfect Constitutionalism in President Cruz’s first 100 days.  The former may—or may not—lead to the latter (absent, of course, President Cruz).  At least it holds out the hope that moving back toward the Constitutional ideal, if not to full restoration, might someday be a realistic goal.  It isn’t now. Continuing to try for it to the exclusion of what is actually achievable in the here and now will yield exactly as much as that strategy has for the last 30 years: nothing.

The only specific criticism Owens can muster against Trump is that Trump has shown a willingness to reach out to Sanders voters.  In other words, Trump wants to win.  We actually don’t see a whole lot of evidence for Trump’s feeling the Bern.  But we hope he does!  Aren’t the Sandernistas Americans too? Haven’t many of then been hurt by the same Davoisie policies that have hurt Trump’s Republican supporters?  Second, what good have the last 16 years of Red-Blue trench warfare—which all the orthodox “conservative” candidates, our Haigs and Pétains, would merely have furthered—done for the principles Owens (and we) care about?  Again: nothing.  The prospect of scrambling that electoral map and really realigning our politics is as, if not more, important than the intellectual reset, which is already more than a prospect.

We’ve said it before and may as well say it again.  Bismarck was right: politics is the art of the possible. The restoration of Principled American Constitutional Conservatism is, right now, a distant dream.  At best.  It is certainly not possible unless much groundwork is laid.  If you want to bench 300, first you must lift 100, then work your way up, a little at a time.  Or you can load the bar to 300 and press on it ineffectually, day after day, consoling yourself that you are “principled” because you know that 300 is the “right” goal and you are too principled to settle for anything less.  The bar will never move, and your muscles will continue to atrophy, but you will feel smug and lofty.  That appears to be the ongoing strategy of “principled conservatism.”  It may be principled, but it’s also stupid.

America was strong once but we let our moral and political muscles atrophy.  The Greatness Agenda is a training program to build them back up again.  “I’m a conservative, but at this point, who cares?”Trump recently asked, echoing JAG’s mission statement.  “We’ve got to straighten out the country.” No “conservative” intellectual has said anything remotely that intelligent since this election cycle began.

Returning, before we leave you, to the reader who occasioned this missive, he asks if Sasse is “our Cicero”—that is, a final, wholly ineffectual advocate for a return to the old ways.  For our judgement of Cicero’s political acumen, we refer the reader to Plutarch.  For our view of the comparison of Ben Sasse to Cicero, we refer him to Lloyd Bentsen.  We leave him with this thought: if a man of Cicero’s caliber completely failed to save the Roman Republic, why would anyone hope for more from Ben Sasse?


The GOP’s Grand Bargain Fizzles

The 96th post from the Journal of American Greatness originally published in May, 2016.

ESTABLISHMENT FRUSTRATION at Donald Trump’s candidacy is less frustration with Trump himself than with the fraying of the constituency that initially made possible Republican electoral success. During the twelve years of Republican presidents 1981–1993, and especially after Republicans’ seizing of the House of Representatives in 1994, a new conservative intellectual superstructurewas built upon the new base of the Republican Party. As with every superstructure, it routinized the production of its self-justification. The magazines, journals, think tanks and conferences confirmed one another in the certainty that Reagan conservatism, glossed with shiny trade deals and an Internet boom, would remain the formula of the future.

The base no longer wants the superstructure. While the superstructure may pretend that the base’s candidate is simply distasteful to them, what really galls them is that the base and the candidate reject their account of what conservatism is. In one breath, as though it were the same thing, they assert that Donald Trump is not a true conservative and that Donald Trump is not a true Republican. As Charles Krauthammer put it, “Trump has no affinity whatsoever for the central thrust of modern conservatism—a return to less and smaller government,” and yet—and yet!—his policy positions depart from the Republican Platform. (We’re not sure if Krauthammer intended to exclude the Weekly Standard‘s “Big-Government Conservatism.”) Jay Cost too views the party the same way: “The GOP was, for generations,” he says, “the vehicle for advancing conservative ideology.”

Trump was roundly mocked for saying that his party is called the Republican Party, not the Conservative Party. Never mind that a party called “Republican” should preserve the res publica rather than any particular policy agenda. Yet all the king’s horses and all the king’s men can’t put the old coalition back together again. “Folks,” said Trump on April 29, “I’m a conservative, but at this point, who cares? We got to straighten out the country.” 😱 Straightening out the country and preserving the nation is the most conservative thing Trump could do.

The conservative para-intellectual superstructure has forgotten that it is a product of the base. Worse yet, it has forgotten that the base was assembled of disparate parts.

With breathtaking naïveté, writers for the superstructure assert that conservatism is “fusionism”—that is, the fusion of principled social conservatism with principled pro-business capitalism. That intellectual assemblage is only the temporary projection of a now-fissured base.

But even this account is wrong. The real fusion was between socially conservative voters and the pro-business interests that define the Republican Party—excuse us, defined. The Republican establishment has two choices: to remain blind to its fabrication out of an earlier social and economic condition, and so to pass into the night; or to join the new elite.

RECENT OBSERVATIONS that “in a fully-Trumpized G.O.P., Reagan’s ideological coalition would crack up” reverse cause and effect. The causes that first brought the “Moral Majority” into the Republican Party are no longer operative in the way that they were in 1979. They haven’t been operating since the subprime mortgage crisis put an end to the ownership society, that is since Republican economic policies finally ceased helping Middle Americans. And aside from promising a solid Supreme Court appointment (which they have botched before), the Republicans can do little on the social issues at the federal level.

The Culture War, declared in 1992 to domesticate Reaganism’s guardian class, ended on June 26, 2015 with an entry in the L category. (Paul Weyrich had declared it effectively over as early as 1999.) As Mark Tushnet said the other day, “The culture wars are over; they lost, we won.” Washington Republicans could not have been happier that same-sex marriage had been taken off the table of the general election campaign. “Every once in a while, we bring down the curtain on the politics of a prior era,” a relieved David Frum told the New York Times. “The stage is now cleared for the next generation of issues.” We could all move forward on the agenda of economic libertarianism which had been in tension with what were once called “values voters.” And indeed, concern over same-sex marriage had caused Left and Right to overlook the deteriorating structural and economic forms which condition family structure.

Though Tushnet’s comments have prompted consternation across the Lumpencommentariat, ordinary Americans know that he is right. The culture wars are over. The Right lost and the Left won. Bathroom arrangements for transsexuals could only become a national issue once all other important issues of social progressivism were settled. Race has returned as a cause célèbre for the same reason. When every other goal has been attained, return to the beginning.

Trump’s supposed neglect of the social issues is an instinctive awareness of the national GOP’s weakness on the social issues. Great families great with children are a sign of a great nation, he would say. I love families! Families struggle in the toxic environment of economic libertarianism on the right and social libertarianism on the left. Political correctness steals the last dignities of those ordinary Americans who have lost or who struggle to maintain everything else.

The social issues are no longer enough to keep ordinary Middle Americans on the Establishment GOP reservation. The evidence? Trump won. And the social issues are no longer enough to keep ordinary Middle Americans voting Republican at all. The evidence? They didn’t vote for Romney.

Not hating ordinary family life is just another part of not hating America. It is a part, a subordinate or entry-level part, of every Greatness Agenda. It does not entitle a Republican candidate to the support of self-described social conservatives any more than it entitles Vladimir Putin to the support of the same. Countries need families and children to be great. Even the Wall Street Journallaments that the U.S. “is experiencing a baby lull that looks set to last for years, a shift demographers say will likely ripple through the U.S. economy and have an impact on everything from maternity wards to federal social programs.”

For that reason, after the possibility of winning the Culture Wars went away, ordinary Americans’ application of a socially conservative litmus test to Republican candidates disappeared (or at least changed) as well. But ordinary Americans’ love of American greatness did not go away. The neoconservatives paid for loyalty to their military adventures through ordinary Americans’ real chants of “U-S-A!” and countless other expressions of patriotism that no one of the Washington left or right would perform. Again, the matters of life, family, marriage and so forth were never the whole concern of voters who described themselves as socially conservative. They had to be embraced as a defensive posture as the progressive agenda on those matters advanced from the 1960s to today. Flags symbolize victory, though, and the rainbow flag flies high.

WHEN MIDDLE AMERICANS INKED THEIR DEAL with the Republican Party, they were still prospering economically. Ordinary states, not even really special ones like California or New York, had modernized America and made her great: what else did the swan-song talk of the “Greatest Generation” mean? Though American industrial might already began to decline in the 1970s, Middle American had more than enough greatness to last for a while. Americans took home respectable paychecks, could earn interest even in bank savings accounts, and provided for their families. As the tides began to shift, honorable blue-collar work became harder to find and the service sector emerged, progress—though now somehow more uncertain—could at least be understood as advancing in a new way. The massive credit expansion of the 1990s and early 2000s covered over the shift away from wages to credit, and away from industry to finance.

Middle Americans did not see for a long time that their long-term interests were not being served by the Republican Establishment’s interpretation of what free-market economics meant. They voted for Republicans because while Republicans might be stupid, at least they weren’t evil (a parallelism coined by Sam Francis). Stated Republican policies on marginal tax rates, financial deregulation, voucher programs and the like seemed more reasonable than the alternative, and the Southern Strategy had bought off Middle Americans’ earlier sympathy for Democratic Party economics. Meanwhile, any challenge to the complicated legal arrangements known as free trade agreements was (and is) met with recitations of neo-Ricardian maxims. Economists cannot even figure out how to analyze the results of trade deals.

The association of the old “Moral Majority” with the classical, pro-business, pro-trade, pro-immigration GOP Establishment was an alliance of convenience made possible by the Democratic Party’s progressive separation from ordinary, Middle American Democrats. As we said above, the socially conservative mien of ordinary voters is only one expression they can show. Since the Culture Wars are lost, what reason do they have to show their socially conservative face, when their economic stagnation is making it more and more difficult to live a minimally socially conservative life?

Common explanations of why “conservative white evangelicals” would vote for Trump overlook the economic stagnation of many evangelicals, and also overlooks the end of the Culture War (since the Left, as Mark Tushnet implies, is otherwise still fighting it). The New York Times spoke more truth than it realized in calling the old alliance “a lasting deal for Republican candidates.” Merely citing “the extraordinary weakness of what establishment conservatism has stood far” is also inadequate, even though the statement holds.

The constant complaints that Trump isn’t a real Republican or a real conservative overlook the pragmatic relationship between the Republican constituency and the Republican platform over the last thirty years.

What was a platform of convenience is, in response to Trump, being canonized as Principled Conservatism™ by the Lumpencommentariat. Frank Meyer, Jonah Goldberg explained last November, “created an entire philosophical project called ‘fusionism’ to explain why conservatism and libertarianism should remain joined at the hip. In brief, he said that a virtuous society must be a free society, because acts not freely chosen are not virtuous. National Review remains an essentially fusionist enterprise.” But as George Nash explains in the pages of National Review, fusionism succeeded as a “formula for political action” rather than as a “theoretical construct.”

Henry Olsen, also writing at National Review, likened the fusionist political alliance to the Articles of Confederation. “Once the common enemy had been defeated, however, the Articles proved insufficient for the newly independent country to govern itself.” Olsen was right to note the character of fusionism as an alliance, but fusionism hasn’t defeated any common enemy. On the contrary, the Globalization First wing of the Republican Party traded its conservative-fueled electoral success for the Davoisie Agenda. It harmed the economic interests of the Middle Americans who were its own temporary constituency, while occasionally servicing their socially conservative demands. Its complaints about Trump’s “morals and character” are simply an attempt to keep morals-and-character voters on the reservation.

WHEN MARX SPOKE OF THE “BASE,” he did not mean the voters of today’s Republican Party but the totality of economic conditions, property distributions, social interests and means of production that organize and make possible ordinary life. When the socially conservative interests of ordinary Americans were primary due to the decency and thus lower priority of their economic life, they made common cause with the Republican business class. As economic stagnation has gripped large parts of the electorate and as elite indifference toward American Greatness has grown more evident, the Republican elite have seemed less stupid to their own voters—and a little more evil.

Only the superstructure would think that the Republican policy agenda must always be embraced as an agenda rather than, as it has been for ordinary Americans, as the means to realize the goal of American Greatness. That error is to be expected. It is in the nature of superstructures to think such things.

In order to rescue themselves Republican politicians, strategists, theoreticians, journalists and policy wonks will have to stop christening the party’s platform of convenience as Principled Conservatism™. All this time we thought they were more cynical. Yet off they ride, away from convenience into the arms of theory. It is a remarkable time.

As we have noted on a prior occasion, with few exceptions the managerial elite doubt the efficacy of their own solutions. Managing a nation from which one is otherwise detached is terribly inconvenient. It is sad to be a revolutionary class and not recognize what one is. How the members of this class can reorient themselves is a matter best left to them. Their efforts “to dissolve the people / and elect another” have not borne any fruit beneficial to them. The managers’ own policies have altered the base, and if they do not shift then this time they may well be replaced. Hoping that Trump is a passing problem, hoping that they can sprinkle bits of Trumpism atop Ryanism and have a nice dinner—small moves will not save them. To begin they will have to realize why the Greatness Agenda, though its parts change, will appeal to men and women so long as they love their countries. Indicting those people for being insufficiently principled mistakes secondary principles for primary ones.


Restatement on Sulla

The 95th post from the Journal of American Greatness originally published in May, 2016.

Friar knocks us—we mean that in a friendly way, as he is a friend of JAG—for inappropriately comparing Trump to Sulla.  We fear that he misunderstood our point, or that we made it with insufficient clarity, or both.  So let us clarify.

The more apt comparison to Sulla—which we made in an early post—is to Reagan.  That might offend Friar even more, but we meant it in a very narrow sense.  (And I am indebted to my colleague Plautus for this brilliant, mischievous suggestion.)  Reagan was of course (leftist calumnies aside) not the bloodthirsty monster that Sulla was.  But he appears to have been, and may turn out to be, the last president who seriously tried to restore the old Constitutional order to its proper functioning.  The resemblance to Sulla on that score is unmistakable—as is their joint failure.

In the Sullivan essay to which Friar objects, we mentioned Sulla only twice: the first time, as one of the very few seizers of absolute power who has ever given it up voluntarily; the second time as the first “winner” in Rome’s conflict between the optimati and the populari.  Friar seems to think that we meant to compare Trump to Sulla—in method, intent, or something else.

Nothing could have been further from our minds.  The first reference was meant to illustrate how rare it is that tyrants ever leave power.  If Trump is a would-be tyrant—as many allege—then he is unusual in having shown no sign of wishing to remain in power for life.  The second was to show that if America is truly in its “late republican” stage, then Caesarism is inevitable, but which side Caesar will be on is not.  The actual Caesar who founded the Roman Empire was of the party of the populari, but he won on a fluke (or to say better, the imprudence of others).  And before he won, Sulla—of the opposite party—had won first and resigned, thinking (mistakenly) that he had restored the orders he sought to revive.

None of that is to say that Trump favors proscriptions (though we at JAG could accomplish a lot with George Soros’ money, ahem) or any of the rest of Sulla’s rather nasty methods.  It’s just to say: if this is really the end, it’s not inevitable that the anti-Western, anti-American left will become the monarch of the coming degraded imperial age.  A “right” whose priority is the interests of the historic American nation might also—and perhaps even more likely—end up in the curile chair.

It’s a depressing thought, to be sure, but these are depressing times.  Let’s hope things do not come to that.  The implementation of the Greatness Agenda might help to see that they don’t.


Useless Idiots

The 94th post from the Journal of American Greatness originally published in May, 2016.

Someone named James Lileks doesn’t like us. Who is James Lileks, you ask? I had no idea, either, until I looked him up after being informed of his animadversions against this august Journal. For anyone who cares to know, Lileks blogs for National Review on occasion, mostly about Star Wars (the film franchise, not the Reagan-era aerospace program). He’s also a guest on a few podcasts. Overall, he seems to be an enthusiastic adherent of the Jonah Goldberg style of punditry, in which every argument is expressed through a dorky reference to GenX pop culture. But Lileks’ real claim to fame, according to Google search at least, is that he got fired from the Minneapolis local newspaper some years ago. After reading his sloppy arguments and failed attempts at humor, I can understand why. It is frankly a waste to spend time on Lileks’ rubbish, but some things need to be clarified, and correcting Lileks’ silly errors might reveal some important truths.

First off, Lileks doesn’t like our website design. We’ll give him that one, but if it makes him feel better, he can think of it as occupying the bleeding edge of the return to 1990s internet aesthetics. Consider it the online equivalent of normcore.

More substantively, he doesn’t like that we have attempted to understand “Trumpism” and the reasons for its surprising popularity beyond the utterances of Trump himself:

…the authors seem to have a remarkable amount of confidence that Trump will implement the philosophy they have named after him. The last time I saw this much projection on a blank object my ticket said IMAX. [Hahahaha! I guess conservative humor is now as lame as its policy….]

Of course, we have no such confidence that Trump himself will implement our “philosophy” (though we do think that voters could reasonably have more confidence in the blank slate of Trump than in the thoroughly discredited Bush agenda). Personally, however, I hold no stake in whether anyone votes for Trump or not. Our purpose has always been to investigate how Trump managed to defeat several talented candidates for the nomination, whether there is anything to his at times incoherent message, and why it resonated with voters. Is it all just reality TV antics and racism, as Lileks and his crowd suggest? I doubt it.

The phenomenal excitement around Trump demonstrates that he represents something to his voters–and to his opponents–much larger than his actual candidacy. We have tried–sometimes playfully, sometimes seriously–to contextualize, interpret, and even articulate whatever that might be, consciously going far beyond any campaign planks. Pardon the pretentious Straussianism, but at the heart of Socratic political philosophy is questioning whether the imperfect–often buffoonish, even Lileksian–opinions of the city might point to something higher. In living memory, there has been no better opportunity for this sort of activity than that occasioned by the rise of Trump. And we have taken to writing about it on an amateur blog only because most of the pundits who get paid to do this are too stupid to do it themselves (which itself contributed to Trump’s success). We have said this many times before and hopefully will not have to say it again. If Lileks wants to write campaign talking points, he is welcome to do it, but that is not what we’re doing.

But the most objectionable sentence in Lileks’ screed (and the reason I take such a hostile tone toward a fellow niche blogger) is this:

Trumpism, as they describe it, is National Greatness. They cite the paleos – Buchanan and Sam Francis, presumably without the latter’s fears of race-mixing and letting the blonde stock sleep with the lower dusky sorts.

Presumably, whenever Lileks encounters an argument he disagrees with, his first recourse is not to smear it as racist through misleading implications. In fact, the article in which Sam Francis is referenced explicitly denounces his “deservedly criticized statements on race” and “undeniable lapses in judgment and decency.” Our rejection of those views is not merely presumable; we repudiated them beyond all doubt. Lileks could have mentioned that but chose instead to leave it at an insinuating presumably. He could also have mentioned that we have cited the works of everyone from Plato to Tocqueville to Leo Strauss, along with Irving Kristol, David Frum, Ross Douthat and Paul Krugman (some of them in the same article). But that would spoil the cheap shot of dismissing everyone he disagrees with as racist “paleos.” To repeat a now common refrain, this sort of thing is precisely why “conservative” “intellectuals” like Lileks have been so ineffectual in opposing academic “political correctness” and in the “culture war” more broadly. I’m surprised he doesn’t demand a trigger warning and a safe space as well.

Indeed, the alacrity with which Lileks resorts to the shaming tactics of campus protesters is intellectually inexcusable. Yes, Sam Francis said some morally repugnant and just plain stupid things, but that does not necessarily mean that everything he said was repugnant or stupid.  Heidegger, for example, was a Nazi, but that does not mean everything he wrote is inherently inseparable from Nazism or that everyone who reads him is a Nazi. By Lileks’ logic, the American founding documents he claims to cherish so much must be instruments of oppression, since they were written and adopted in part by slaveholders, and in original form institutionalized slavery. Even Lincoln would have to be disavowed. Norman Podhoretz, too, and on and on. But I suspect we could purge all the authors of the western (and non-western) canon and it wouldn’t bother Lileks at all. At least there is no evidence that he has ever read any of them. As long as he gets to watch Ghostbusters, he’ll be happy.

Lileks becomes even more ridiculous when he attempts to make a real argument:

The authors harbor a general and specific animus towards the commutariat [commentariat?], the Davos crowd, the rootless internationalist, and there’s a familiar tone of the faculty-lounge envy in their work. It’s not so much rule by elites they don’t seem to like it’s rule by the wrong elites.

Strictly speaking, our animus is directed more toward the Davoisie ideology of internationalism and the doctrine that human beings are just interchangeable cogs in the global economy, rather than any specific persons. But Lileks’ latter point is more interesting insofar as it is at least factually correct. Indeed we do not pretend that any society could exist without “elites.” We are not now and have never been communards. Yet the character and beliefs of those elites are critical in determining the nature of the society, and we emphatically wish for (though do not expect) their replacement by something more salutary (again, let’s leave Trump himself out of it for now). Lileks can call that “faculty-lounge envy” if he likes (hey, it’s better than press-room envy!), but we would call it a defining element of politics. If anything, we have attempted go beyond quarrels over which politicians hold executive positions to address issues of cultural power (the regime, so to speak), which we consider more fundamental. By contrast, it is Lileks and his crowd who think that all would be well if only Paul Ryan were in a position to implement his ill-conceived ideology.

Though how he would evaluate political success is unclear. Regarding our preference for judging government action on the basis of whether it helps or harms Americans, Lileks trowels out this nonsense:

Something cannot be good for all Americans, but good in general for the majority. It would be good for the majority to confiscate the annual accumulated wealth of anyone who makes more than $50 million a year, and distribute it in the form of vouchers redeemable for fruit. Of course that is not what Trumpism proposes, but when you start to introduce utilitarian calculations, then any sort of action that troubles a minority but benefits the majority is possible – and once you admit that, then the justifications for proscriptions are easily summoned.

I’m not sure where the fruit vouchers come from–I guess that’s what our celebrated humorist considers a joke?–or exactly what this means. In response, we could construct equally slippery slopes: Is Lileks arguing that if any one person objects to any particular law, then it should automatically be repealed? Can we have a government at all?

But of course none of this is serious. At issue here is whether it is possible to posit an American national interest and act on it effectively. To this, obviously, we say yes, and we would also argue that the national interest is not equivalent to majority rule. Both, admittedly, can be complicated issues in practice, though not really in concept. In any event, only someone completely ignorant of both our work and political thought generally could conclude that our arguments are premised on Benthamite utilitarianism, which we leave to the Davoisie.

So, to interpret charitably, Lileks seems to be arguing that there is no national/political interest but only individual interests and/or that any assertion of a national interest inevitably leads to tyranny. He’s welcome to that view, and if he is capable of articulating it intelligently, we’ll be happy to debate it respectfully. In the meantime, we’ll only point out that it seems to be his side that is drawing up proscriptions.

Lileks goes on:

There’s no time frame for the “goodness” that actions might bestow, which means all sorts of things might be good. It is good for Americans to forgive all mortgages. It is good for all Americans to make college free. It is good for Americans to provide universal high-quality health care. It is good! For a while. Then it isn’t.

These straw man examples notwithstanding, we wholeheartedly embrace the general point. Although some philosophic questions may be eternal, political “actions” are not. Many things are good for awhile until they aren’t. Adopting the right policies at the right time is the essence of political prudence and perhaps even virtue. It is also common sense. Tariffs, for example, were shrewd in Hamilton’s time, while expanding free trade was sound policy after World War II. We consider it a legitimate question whether it was sound policy during the last ten years or whether it will be during the next ten. Likewise, the first Gulf War was prudent. The second one was not.

We add only that exercising such judgment requires having the ability to define a national interest. Perhaps that is why any such judgment totally eludes Lileks, who seems to think that the rote repetition of his ideology for all eternity is the highest form of politics. But perhaps it is unfair to expect prudence from someone who could not hold a job reporting on zoning committee meetings in Wayzata.

Absent from their manifesto is the idea that the something Good for Americans might necessitate the expansion of the State. Perhaps because that doesn’t seem to trouble them.

Actually, it’s not absent. We state plainly that the expansion of the state, in and of itself, does not trouble us. It is at times necessary and beneficial. Would Lileks have opposed the expansion of the state needed to fight World War II? Did he oppose the Bush era expansion of the security apparatus to prevent terrorism? Rather, such expansion is troubling when it occurs for the wrong reasons or in the wrong circumstances, or, as has happened historically, remained long after the exigency which necessitated it had passed. I am not arguing for any of Trump’s proposals specifically, or that these issues are unimportant, but only that they are as much issues of prudence as they are of abstract principle.

But there’s Greatness, and there’s Goodness….You can be good without being great – indeed America was good before it was great, maybe the first time a the nation became great because it was good. Putin’s Russia aspires to be Great as the Soviet iteration; it would not be good. China is great, and its rise has allowed some new freedoms, but it has not cohered into an instrument that fosters liberty.

Giving credit where credit is due, at least Lileks does not falsely attribute the above reasoning to de Tocqueville, and he actually raises a serious point without adolescent peevishness. His principles, however, once more appear to allow no opening for prudence. But how does one advance one’s principles without prudent deviations from them on occasion? And how principled is someone, really, who is content with hollow symbolism, who shrinks from any difficult actions needed to advance his principles? Should the U.S. have refused to cooperate with Stalin or declared war on Franco in 1941 on principle? It is certainly possible to take a principled stand for a lost cause, but is principled political action confined solely to idealistic blogging?

Although we have unequivocally affirmed our commitment to the larger principles of the American founding, we are not so historically naive. America did not become great through fine speeches alone. U.S. treatment of indigenous peoples, the Mexican Cession, the Spanish-American War, and all manner of devious maneuvers during the Cold War, among many other things, could hardly be considered entirely consistent with good principles. Yet they certainly enhanced American power.

Thus, if their argument for America’s goodness stands and falls only on abstract cliches like “fostering liberty,” it is no surprise that conservatives have failed both in government and in defending their precious principles. Their historically and philosophically illiterate dogmas of universal “democracy” ultimately cannot comprehend any real politics, i.e. politics of necessity. Their professions of goodness fail both intellectually and politically insofar as they cannot justify the greatness necessary to establish or defend any form of goodness. They have refused to confront this problem–indeed they cannot even see it–and have no answer to it. Lileks does not, either, and his brush with serious argument is fleeting, soon giving way to the more comfortable ground of petty and foolish sniping:

So. The Constitution, limited government, local governance: useless, as long as the wrong people are at the helm.

Not saying that’s the case here, but: some people don’t give a rat’s ass for the Constitution if it means more Mexicans. Others are impatient with devotion to that flimsy piece of parchment, because it impedes the steps necessary to restore Greatness. They mention Caesarism a lot, usually talking about other people’s clammy, silly fears – but as one of their writers notes here and there, a rotten republic produces Caesars, and we’re certainly a rotten republic, so a Caesar is inevitable – why not make him one of us?

And the “one of us” they choose is someone their site regards as an imperfect manifestation of the ideas he “represents,”….

First of all, as he admits, mean-spirited opposition to Mexicans is not the case here, so why even say it here? Can Lileks not resist impugning everyone who disagrees with him as racist? As for those fringe characters who do make such claims, Lileks is welcome to favor them with his profanities if he so chooses, but he should do so separately. For we are not them and have explicitly repudiated those claims. For what it’s worth, I would gladly trade the entire population of Latin America for the opportunity to deport ten or twenty “conservative” pundits.

But while we’re on the subject, in what sense can the American Constitution be construed to “mean more Mexicans” (or fewer)? The framers seem to have wisely left matters of immigration policy to the prudence of subsequent governments. In addition, there are many reasons (e.g. economics, security, etc.) that might justify more restrictive immigration policies in certain circumstances and that have nothing to do with racial animosity. But of course our exalted constitutional scholar cannot condescend to acknowledge those.

As for the rest, we did not choose Caesarism, and we did not choose Trump (though we are flattered to be thought so influential). We are neither advocating for nor predicting the cultural degradation that renders true republican government impossible. We are merely observing it–and honestly acknowledging the obvious realities before us. The Founders wrote a great deal about the reliance of republican institutions on cultural institutions. Lileks should look it up sometime when he is done blogging about his household repairs.

It’s debatable, of course, but I continue to maintain that in the present cultural environment, reciting platitudes about the Constitution, limited government, and local governance is useless. On this question, it is telling that the very people who talk most about these principles know the least about them. Any genuine restoration of republican government is not merely a question of getting new “people at the helm,” in the sense of electing a true “conservative” or whatever. In the present moment, when conservatism has been routed on all important cultural and intellectual questions, restoring true constitutional–or even merely competent–government requires a fundamental transformation of the underlying culture and elite opinion. It requires, in a certain sense, regime change in America. Is Trump capable of accomplishing that? Probably not. But however slight the possibility may be, it is greater than the absolutely zero chance offered by pundits like Lileks and their own increasingly incoherent version of “conservatism.”

Finally, on this point, I suspect that what motivates so many of Lileks’ and his set’s moronic and futile gestures against Trump and “Trumpism” is the dawning realization of their own insignificance. Admittedly, some of the concerns about character and even “conservative principle” are neither disingenuous nor groundless. But the fevered intensity of Trump derangement syndrome, which has risen to levels far beyond any opposition to Obama’s policies or the Clinton campaign, suggests something more.

It suggests an underlying fear that Trump’s popularity will expose the fact that most of our conservative “elites” are not elite in any respect. With few exceptions, conservative “elites” lack meaningful experience in government, the military, business, or even academic credentials. Meanwhile, those who do have government experience presided over some of the worst economic and foreign policy catastrophes in our nation’s history. As a result, these “elites” only maintain their positions by demonstrating a rigid adherence to a particular ideology. And their only claim to such status is the pretense that they speak for and influence a nontrivial “conservative” minority and that they can channel its political power. The fact that Trump has prevailed against all of them precisely by rejecting their ideology, however, reveals that they cannot even do this.

Thus, whatever their principles, unlettered and inexperienced non-entities such as Lileks have a definite class interest in opposing Trump. His victory already casts doubt upon their ability to offer themselves to donors as useful idiots in the future. Presumably, Lileks is not the total idiot that he appears to be, but as both a “thought leader” without thought and a partisan without a party, he is totally useless.



Lileks’ argument that it would be “good” to confiscate wealth is nonsense and shows a lack of understanding both of political theory and economics.  Economics 101 tells us why it would not be good: state-sanctioned—and a fortiori state-practiced—theft destroys the incentive structure necessary to make an economy work, and thereby lowers productivity, standard of living and overall wealth.
Theft, it should be needless to say, is also most of the time unjust, and injustice is ipso facto never good.  (If I have Plato right, justice is always good, but the good is not necessarily always just.)  Things that most of the time are unjust may in fact be just in certain circumstances, and hence good, but this is not one of them.  Massive tax levies in a national emergency might qualify but that’s clearly not what Lileks is talking about.  We would also say (in a departure from “conservative” orthodoxy that may further upset Lileks) that in times of rampant and rising inequality, economic and tax policies that seek to narrow that gap are just, and thus good.  It’s curious, though, to read a conservative who would presumably oppose closing tax loopholes and raising rates on the rich praise confiscation as “good.”
Moreover, in perhaps the only useful work that Arthur Brooks ever did, he demonstrated using conventional social science tools that “earned success” is good for human beings.  Unearned windfalls erode their work ethic and corrupt their virtue.  There’s something to the cliché of the lottery winner whose life is subsequently ruined in debauchery and depression.
So there is really no sense in which Lileks’ proposal is “good” for anyone.  This points again to the core reason why conservative punditry is so bad: it is based either on bad “philosophy” or else has no grounding in philosophy at all.  Hence it can speak of “the good” without any conception what that rationally means and can say absurd things like theft is “good.”  Lileks and others like him are in a cave beneath even Leo Strauss’ cave beneath the cave.


NPR: Maybe She Doesn’t Have This?

The 86th post from the Journal of American Greatness originally published in May, 2016.

UPDATE—May 11: NPR gave airtime to John Feehery, the president of QGA Public Affairs, in order to explain his decision to unify behind Trump in spite of his reservations: “What Donald Trump has done is he’s shaken up a political system here in Washington that desperately needs shaking up…. He’s the change candidate in this.” A variety of mainstream publications are now sounding the alarm over Hilary’s campaign. The Atlantic reported on the close Quinnipiac Poll. A certain self-described “anti-Republican” columnistwarned her as well.

UPDATE—May 10: NPR (again!) poured cold water on the anti-Trump GOP, this morning noting that time has essentially run out to get a third-party candidate on the ballot in sufficient states to carry the general election.

“SHE’S GOT THIS” has been the constantand correct—refrain during Hillary Clinton’s march to the Democratic presidential nomination. Applying this assumption to the general election was the basis of much objection to Donald Trump earlier in the primary season. Now that Trump has effectively locked up the nomination, Establishment Republicans’ deeper (well, shallower, but let’s be charitable) objections to Trump have come out into the open, the consequences be damned.

The myth of Trump’s unelectability has become the GOP Establishment’s rally cry, and that of 90 percent of “top operatives, strategists and activists,” as well. The organs of Principled Conservatism™ have abandoned their usual “red meat” posts on Republican prospects in the general election, though last time round they perpetuated the myth of Romney’s electability right to the bitter end.

Whether NPR sensed a market opportunity in trolling the Republican media is unknown to us. What is apparent is that they are unexpectedly delighting in the decline of the Republican Establishment. They show their delight not by delighting openly but by reporting what the Republicans will not report. #NeverTrump, they said on April 29, was backfiring. Weeks before that, they noted that Pennsylvania Democrats were crossing over to vote for Trump.

Today they made the dangerous suggestion that Hillary Clinton’s campaign is not assured a victory in the general election. Dangerous, because Clinton’s inevitability and Trump’s unelectability are the only narratives the media will tell. What will happen when these myths implode?

Mara Liasson exposed the first myth on NPR this evening. “A lot of Democrats say that in order to beat Trump, she needs to be developing a clearer message on the economy…. Asked what, in one sentence, Clinton wants to do, here’s what David Axelrod, President Obama’s former strategist, said: ‘I don’t think Hillary Clinton wants to do anything in one sentence,’ said Axelrod.” She needs a message on the economy … but doesn’t have one at all.

“Democratic pollster Celinda Lake,” Mara added, “says Clinton needs her own origin story. She needs to tell voters why they are struggling. ‘Why are we not competitive? Why do we not have manufacturing jobs?’ said Lake…. In Celinda Lake’s polls, Democrats are consistently behind Republicans on the issue of the economy. In recent general election polls, where Clinton beats Trump handily in the horse race, the economy is the only issue where he beats her. And the economy is THE No. 1 issue. Democrats have never won a presidential election when they’re losing on the economy.

“WHAT COULD BE CLINTON’S BIG IDEA?” Mara Liasson asked, almost thirteen months after Hillary Clinton announced her 2016 campaign. “Debt-free college? A major infrastructure program? She hasn’t decided yet.”

Good luck to Hillary’s campaign staff on writing those inspiring speeches. Nothing like an infrastructure program to reverse several generations of stagnation and decline for ordinary Americans. Priming the education pump will also deliver immediate help to families in need….

Mara Liasson’s heresies didn’t stop there. “Trump beats Clinton on the economy not just because he’s a businessman … but because she’s a woman,” she said. “Lake’s polling shows that female candidates from both parties are rated behind men on the economy and jobs.” But but but … we thought … it can’t be that, this doesn’t compute and—don’t all women hate Trump, we were told…. Well anyway it’s sexist not to prefer Clinton on the economy, so maybe if the press just browbeats America into submission, then everything will be OK?

And remember, the ones who say Trump can’t win are the same ones who say Mitt Romney’s third party ticket could go all the way to the White House.

We never thought we’d say it. But if you want to hear the story of how Hillary loses, you might need to check in with NPR.